‘Don’t Tell Youth How You Can Help. Ask Them.’

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‘Don’t Tell Youth How You Can Help. Ask Them.’

As someone focused on supporting immigrant youth, Dr. Robert Ponichtera says that even though the young people he works with have many reasons to be fearful, he is continually inspired by their resilience. 

“Our youth remain persistent and positive, and when we show them the many opportunities that still exist for them, they respond enthusiastically and keep moving forward,” he said.

Dr. Robert Ponichtera and Liberty’s Promise Youth
Dr. Robert Ponichtera and
Liberty’s Promise Youth

Dr. Ponichtera is the founder and executive director of Liberty’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that serves immigrant youth in need, ages 15-21, in the Washington, DC and Baltimore metropolitan areas. Liberty’s Promise serves 800 youth a year through its afterschool civics program and professional internship program. Through these programs, Liberty’s Promise prepares immigrant youth to succeed in their college, career, and civic life so that they can achieve their personal American Dream.

America’s Promise Alliance asked Dr. Ponichtera what excites him about his work, what challenges him, and what he’s learned. Take a look at his answers below:

Q: What inspires you about your work?

A: I am inspired by how optimistic our youth are despite the political climate. On one hand, they have many reasons to be fearful—and they are—but they are also extremely resilient. Whatever the political climate is, that toughness is essential for success. Our youth remain persistent and positive, and when we show them the many opportunities that still exist for them, they respond enthusiastically and keep moving forward.

Q: What keeps you doing this work?

A: I founded Liberty’s Promise twelve years ago, and I keep doing this work because there has always been a need for youth to have positive influences in their lives. I want to promote the vision of America as a land of equal opportunity, liberty and justice for all, and equal justice under the law. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been around for a long time, and I don’t think it will ever disappear completely, so we must do our best to promote this positive vision and counter bigotry.

Q: What successes in your community are you most proud of? 

A: I am most proud of the accomplishments of our program alumni. Just this week, I touched base with an alumna who is about to start her PhD in clinical psychology. Oftentimes we are so bogged down in the day-to-day work of our programs that we don’t see the long-term impact of our work. Our youth are incredible and you don’t have to do much to help them succeed; all you have to do is be there for them and let them know that you are invested in their success. That makes all the difference.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned? 

A: When working with youth, you have to listen to them and ask them what they need. There’s an enormous difference between having a conversation with a young person and saying, “Here is how I am going to help you” versus asking, “How can I help you?” The nonprofit and educational world has a paternalistic tendency to decide what’s best for youth without consulting them. Practitioners need to meet youth where they are, understand their goals, ask them how they want to proceed, and respond accordingly.

Q: What are the top three words that describe the biggest challenges to your work? 

A: Funding, Awareness, and Ignorance (about the immigrant community).

For more insights from our community leader spotlights, read Access is Not Enough - Community Leader Spotlight with Michael Conway, Center for Powerful Public Schools.